“Why Your Church Needs a New Psalter Hymnal”

I suppose making a blog post on April Fools’ Day might be a somewhat unwise decision. Maybe you opened this post expecting a satire piece about Crown & Covenant’s recent release of The Book of Psalms for Worship, Hip-Hop Edition, or about the recent finding that John Calvin’s personal copy of the Genevan Psalter had “The Heart of Worship” pasted inside the back cover.

Alas, I bring you neither of those things today; the article I’m sharing today is a genuine one. It’s my most recent contribution to The Outlook magazine, entitled “Why Your Church Needs a New Psalter Hymnal.” In it I argue that the URCNA needs to adopt a federational songbook, even if there are still many things about the new book that don’t line up with the personal preferences of myself or others. The article has generated a lot of feedback via email and Facebook, so I thought I would invite you to join the conversation here as well, especially as Synod 2016 and the prospect of a final vote draw near. I’m happy to hear opposing points of view and interact with fellow URCNA members who have given significant thought to this issue.

These two paragraphs pretty much summarize my opinion as regards the new book:

‘Have it your way’ may be the (former) motto of Burger King and the rest of our culture, but it is not—and must not be—the motto of the church. More and more the culture rejects the idea of a common sphere that requires the sacrifice of personal preference. In so doing it creates a world where common causes are impossible.

In direct defiance to this worldview, the church exists as a community of believers united in Christ—believers who deny themselves and look to the interests of others for the sake of the kingdom of Jesus. A Psalter Hymnal is tangible proof that we love each other enough to come to a common agreement about what music glorifies God most and serves the church best, even at the cost of our personal favorites. That is how I can say that I wholeheartedly support this project whether or not I like every song it contains.

That’s all for now!

–MRK

This Brief Journey (Review)

ThisBriefJourneyAs a busy college student, I never budget enough time for studying God’s Word—and I imagine the same is true for many readers of this blog. This means I need to continually discipline myself to read the Bible and pray more diligently and more consistently. But it also means I’m on the lookout for short, manageable devotional aids that can help me accomplish these goals. One such resource is Rhett Dodson’s This Brief Journey: Loving and Living the Psalms of Ascents (128 pp., DayOne, 2012). (A later companion volume exists, To Be a Pilgrim, but I haven’t yet read it.)

Dodson, a PCA minister with a PhD in Old Testament, considers the first eight psalms of ascents (Psalms 120-127) in this short book. Perhaps because they grew from sermons delivered to his congregation, Dodson’s meditations are imbued with brevity, clarity, and pastoral warmth. Each chapter carefully expounds on the original context of the psalm, the imagery used by the psalmist, the structure of the text, the personal application for today, and—best of all—the various ways in which Christ is foreshadowed. Dodson’s concluding thougths on Psalm 127 are an excellent example:

[Y]our home will be empty unless you fill it with Christ. Fill your home with his Word. Fill it with prayer. Cultivate family worship. But don’t just go through the motions. Seek to develop with your children a hunger for God himself. Ask the Lord to incline your heart to him, so that family worship nurtures a spiritual frame of mind.

A day is coming when the Lord Jesus will return. Our work will be over; our families will be swallowed up in the family of God that is heaven. What will matter on that great day is that we find everything in Christ. Your life at work and your life at home should lead you to seek the Savior. Empty labor and a full quiver—both should drive you to God. (pp. 123, 124)

All in all, I’ve found This Brief Journey to be an accessible and edifying introduction to the psalms of ascents. It has driven me to better understand the lives of Old Testament believers, Christ’s life as the ultimate Singer of the psalms, and my own life in light of God’s redemptive plan. May it do the same for you as well!

–MRK

A Words-Only Psalter (Review)

bopfw_words

A few months ago Crown & Covenant Publications (that’s right, those Pittsburgh psalm-singing gurus) sent me a review copy of a new edition of The Book of Psalms for Worship. Notwithstanding their current selection of hardcover, softcover, loose-leaf, spiral-bound, large-print, lavender, sage, slim, mini, and slim-mini psalters, this latest release was something unique: a words-only edition (574 pp., Crown & Covenant, 2015).

To be honest, I was a bit puzzled. I’m not very familiar with words-only metrical psalters, and I’ve never sung from one in a church service. And being a musician at heart and not a poet, it was hard not to get the feeling that the new book, as it were, took the filling right out of my Oreo.

But after some more investigation, I came to conclude that maybe a text-based psalter isn’t such a crazy idea. Here are some of the advantages to using this words-only psalter (for which I’ll use the ungainly acronym WOP) rather than other editions of The Book of Psalms for Worship:

  • Do-it-yourself psalm-singing. The publisher’s note inside the WOP mentions “its flexibility in matching various tunes with a particular versification.” This means if you don’t like the tune to which a particular psalm is set in the regular Book of Psalms for Worship, you can easily replace it with a different tune of the same meter. A handy metrical index is included in the back.
  • Historical precedent. Although the idea of a songbook without music may strike us as odd, such was the norm just a few centuries ago (followed by the transitional form of the “Dutch door” or “split-leaf” psalter, which Jim introduced here). Even today text-only metrical psalters like the Trinity Psalter are still in print. Ultimately, of course, a text-only psalter reflects the layout of the Book of Psalms itself.
  • The end of verse- and stanza-confusion. When the song leader directs you to sing “verse 2,” do you ever wonder if they mean the second stanza of poetry or literally the second verse of the psalm text? The WOP eliminates this problem by differentiating stanzas with paragraph breaks rather than numerals.
  • Readability for non-musicians. If you struggle to read lyrics spread out over several lines of musical notation, you will love the WOP. Each psalm is laid out line-by-line in clear, readable paragraphs, like a book of poetry. (On the other hand, I could argue that even non-musical congregants should use a words-and-music psalter in order to become familiar with how text and tune interact.)

To be fair, I have to admit that I’ve noticed some drawbacks to the new psalter as well:

  • Not very useful as a standalone edition. The WOP presumes that its owner, or at least the song leader, also owns a regular copy of The Book of Psalms for Worship from which to obtain the tunes. The WOP is useful by itself only if a user prefers to read a metrical version of the psalms rather than a prose version.
  • Disappointing size savings. I hoped the WOP would be the size of a pocket New Testament or smaller, something on the order of 2” x 3” for ultimate portability. Sadly, it remains substantially larger (though, I guess, more readable) than the words-and-music slim-mini editions.
  • Awkward lyrics have nowhere to hide. A tenet of good psalmody is that the text should be able to stand on its own as clear, smooth, attractive poetry. While much of The Book of Psalms for Worship is excellently versified, it includes more than its share of stilted settings (46C is one example). And with a words-only psalter, there’s no music to mask these blemishes.

Whatever deficiencies it may have, I would gladly call The Book of Psalms for Worship one of the best English metrical psalters currently available (and so would Jim, who reviewed the other editions here). The words-only edition is an opportunity for Crown & Covenant to capitalize on the success of an already excellent book. But as I hope even the publishers would admit, these new branches on the growing tree of psalm-singing should never become the final ones, as we continue the quest to sing the Word of God more faithfully and more joyfully.

–MRK

(Per FCC rules, I need to note that I was sent a complimentary review copy of this book, and I was not required to write a positive review.)

Spirit, Screamo, and Psalm-Singing

IMG_1773eThanks to my current college classes I’ve been thinking a lot lately about architecture. Even if we don’t often pause to consider it, it’s a subject most of us have at least some appreciation for. You could probably describe your idea of a cozy house, a sleek office building, or a majestic church just by how the structure is put together.

Architecture is fascinating because it can give us clues about the attitudes behind the buildings as well. Houses are built with separate rooms for individual people to sleep in, but also common areas for families to share meals and other day-to-day activities. Office buildings tend to be designed in tightly-packed cubes to optimize space and maximize productivity. Churches, at least old ones, often include lots of filtered light and upward-pointing lines in an effort to set the sanctuary apart from the workaday world.

I was reminded of the descriptive power of architecture just the other day, when the Alliance Defending Freedom released a video explaining my college’s current legal battle against the abortifacient mandate of Obamacare. The video contains footage of both Geneva’s campus and the US Department of Health and Human Services, and as a professor noted, the difference in architecture is immediately striking. Massive bureaucracy on one hand contrasts with small but vibrant community on the other. You don’t even have to begin by knowing the people inside each organization; you can see it in the buildings.

The point is this: Different architecture reflects different spirits. The way something was put together does–or should–reveal something about what its creators valued. And the same is true for music.

Music has its own kind of architecture: plain or ornate, simple or complex, for one voice or many. Music, too, conveys attitudes and beliefs about the world in which it is created. And when you consider psalm-singing alongside the dominant music of contemporary society, the result is again a study in contrasts.

Think about the structure behind “pop” music genres like screamo and dubstep–the piercing vocals, the guitar riffs, the electronic manipulation, even just the sheer volume. All of these traits certainly seem to send the message (what T. David Gordon would call a “meta-message”) that edginess and entertainment value are the supreme goals of the music. The content of music and lyrics may be trivial, but that doesn’t matter; the medium was created merely for mass consumption, and that’s what counts.

A good topic for another day would be to try to answer whether the genre of “contemporary Christian music” sends a different message. I’m afraid much of it doesn’t. But let’s skip this category of music, along with the older category of hymns, and go back to the psalms. What does the architecture of psalm-singing (not even the content, but just the structures and patterns of psalm-singing) reveal? I’d love to hear your thoughts, but for now, here are a few of my own:

  • Psalm-singing reveals a common identity. When we sing psalms in church, we don’t perform solos. Neither do we let a group of people stand at the front of the sanctuary and do the singing for us. No, we sing together, both in unison and in harmony, affirming that we are all members of the universal body of Christ.
  • Psalm-singing opposes the idea of performance. Groups like my college choir may occasionally sing psalms in concert, but congregational psalm-singing has never been designed around performance. To be honest, a lot of congregational psalm-singing sounds pretty rough around the edges. But in the era of squeaky-clean digital mastering, we may need to be reminded that there are reasons to sing other than “sounding good.”
  • Psalm-singing legitimizes a wide range of emotions. In contrast to the limited emotional vocabulary of pop music, the psalms treat a vast spectrum of life experiences with a vast spectrum of emotional responses. If we take psalm-singing seriously, our worship will include a variety of moods and subjects, some of which we may not be particularly comfortable with. And that’s the point: over time, psalm-singing prepares us for all the ups and downs of the Christian life.
  • Psalm-singing reveals an attitude of worship. The psalms address God so frequently that this point almost seems unnecessary–but it isn’t. The ultimate recipient of our singing isn’t the giant crowd in a mosh pit, nor is it even an auditorium full of fellow believers. The primary reason for our singing isn’t to share our thoughts and feelings with the rest of the world, it’s to communicate with God.

Different architecture, different spirits–and may the Spirit that dwells within us impart a God-honoring (and refreshingly different) shape to the songs we sing!

–MRK

Five Tips for Learning the Psalms

Whether or not you like the idea of New Year’s resolutions, the start of 2016 is a great opportunity to set one goal: Know the psalms better. If you’re looking to grow in your knowledge of Scripture, your understanding of redemptive history, and your closeness to Christ, the psalms are an excellent place to start. If you’re not sure how to begin, here are five practical options for delving into the Book of Psalms throughout the upcoming year.

1. Read through the psalms in your personal daily devotions.

This can be as simple as reading a psalm every day, perhaps the first thing in the morning or the last thing before you go to bed. If you consistently read a psalm a day, you’ll get through the book at least twice before the end of the year. Look for patterns as you read: What are the themes of each psalm? How would you classify them (thanksgiving, lament, wisdom, royal, etc.)? How do you see Jesus’ work foreshadowed in them?

2. Find a good commentary.

As simple, reliable options, consider reading the study notes for the psalms in your study Bible. If you’re looking for a more detailed exposition, good commentaries on the psalms include Spurgeon’s Treasury of DavidAndrew Bonar’s Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalmsand, of course, Calvin.

On the other hand, it’s not necessary to buy a commentary on the whole psalter to appreciate the psalms more. There are many smaller books and booklets devoted to one section or category from the Book of Psalms. A favorite of mine is Rhett Dodson’s This Brief Journey: Loving and Living the Psalms of Ascents, which focuses on Psalms 120-127.

3. Pick some psalms to memorize.

Did you memorize Psalm 23 as a child? It doesn’t have to stop there. Choose a handful of psalms–maybe one from each book of the Psalter, or one for each month of the year–and intentionally, methodically memorize them, either by yourself or with your family. Let these divinely-inspired words penetrate your skin and circulate through your spiritual bloodstream.

Many people, myself included, find it easier to memorize the psalms when they’re set to music. Which brings me to my fourth point:

4. Buy your own psalter.

You don’t have to be musical to benefit from having a metrical psalter in your home. If you attend a church that uses the Psalter Hymnal, ask if they have extra copies or buy your own from Reformed Fellowship. Other good, modern psalters include the New Genevan Psalterthe Trinity Psalterthe Book of Psalms for Singingand the Book of Psalms for WorshipEach of these books has its own strengths and weaknesses, but all of them present the entire Book of Psalms in an easy-to-memorize metrical format. Even just reading them aloud will make memorization easier.

The task will be less daunting, of course, if you have a musical instrument and/or some degree of musical talent in your household. But even if not, you can always grab a pitch pipe and plunge forward into uncharted musical territories with the rest of your family. My college roommates and I do this almost every Sunday, and we love it!

5. Reflect on what you sing in church.

This last point is the hardest of all. My mind wanders in a thousand different directions on Sunday mornings, and keeping it focused on worship at all–let alone the significance of what I’m singing–is a challenging task. To start with, assuming your church sings at least a few psalms in worship, look for connections between the psalms you studied during the week and the words of the congregational songs. Are you singing a psalm you previously studied or memorized? Do different things about the words stand out to you when they’re sung in church? Does the overall theme of the psalm seem different when applied corporately (to the whole body) instead of individually (just to you)?

If your church doesn’t sing psalms, take the opportunity to study further what the psalms have to say about corporate worship, and what the Bible has to say about the psalms in corporate worship. Maybe devote some time on the Lord’s Day to singing psalms at home with your family. And pray that more people in your congregation would come to appreciate the great blessing of the psalter!

These ideas aren’t a magic formula for embedding the psalms in your heart, nor are they meant to detract from the other spiritual disciplines we should be cultivating. The Christian walk is about much more than just knowing the Book of Psalms, but it should certainly include it. And as a new year begins, now is a great time to start!

–MRK


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